San Francisco Landmark Number 87, now recognized as The Contemporary Jewish Museum, was once a power substation. Constructed in 1881, the original brick building played a significant role in supplying gas and ultimately electricity to the city of San Francisco.
Ownership began with a predecessor of the San Francisco Gas and Electric Company and later, the site became known as Jessie Street Substation, Station C, after being passed onto Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) in 1905.
An early 1900 renovation was designed by Willis Polk (1867–1924) in classical revival style replete with terra cotta archways, cherubs, garlands, and crown molding—quite unusual for an industrial building. Polk subscribed to the City Beautiful movement, an architectural school of thought that promoted beauty not only for its own sake but also for its ability to promote moral and civic virtue. It asserted that order could be brought to urban areas through beautiful architecture that could “improve” the common people through art.
The movement’s design was influenced by classical European architecture of the mid to late nineteenth century.
The ornate exterior of the building was particularly striking as before the redevelopment of the Yerba Buena neighborhood was redeveloped in the late twentieth century, the substation was largely hidden in an alleyway surrounded by other buildings. Hardly anyone even knew it existed.
Jessie Street substation is located on that portion of Minna Street between Third and Fourth streets, which is a blind alley. Because of this fact, few people realize its existence or have an opportunity of viewing this very fine piece of work in red brick and cream-colored terra cotta. It was the first of the company’s substations in San Francisco to be designed and built with reference to exterior appearance. It is one of the finest appearing substations to be found anywhere.
Just months before the1906 earthquake, the substation suffered from a massive fire, and PG&E once again commissioned Polk, now working under Daniel Burnham (the mastermind behind the City Beautiful movement in San Francisco), to rebuild the station.
Like most of San Francisco, the substation was damaged during the 1906 Earthquake, but its restoration and return to service in 1907 was not only utilitarian, it was also symbolic. One of the first sources of power to be rebuilt after the Quake, it sent a hopeful beacon of light that heralded the rebirth of the metropolis which was to host 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
In 1971, the substation was purchased by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. Plans to demolish the building and make way for new projects were opposed by preservation groups who succeeded in giving the building landmark status in 1977.
Today, through its conversion into The Contemporary Jewish Museum, the history and purpose of the old substation has been integrated with the art of contemporary life.
While Libeskind’s symbolic additions parallel the progressive and inclusive nature of Bay Area Jewish history, Polk’s preserved brick façade embodies the rich history of SOMA (South of Market Street), marking the neighborhood’s transition from post Gold Rush through City Beautiful and into Redevelopment. The preserved architectural sentiment provides a physical reminder that contemporary life is forever rooted in tradition.